Vijay Anand has a worthy successor.
Sriram Raghavan, the brains behind the dark taut thriller Ek Hasina Thi and the phenomenally acclaimed ‘Johnny Gaddaar’ quoting Tarantino (“I steal from every film”) recently in an article went on to give a complete list of his ‘Reservoir Gods,’ ranging from John Huston’s ‘The Asphalt Jungle’ to Kubrick’s ‘The Killing’ to Jules Dassin’s ‘Rififi’ to the modern day interpreters of the genre: Coen Brothers and Tarantino to Vijay Anand’s suspense-filled thrillers (‘Teesri Manzil,’ ‘Jewel Thief,’ ‘Johnny Mera Naam’) to Jyoti Swaroop’s ‘Parwana,’ and ended it on a note saying: “I hope I have managed to steal something from them.”
The master thief did. And so smoothly that you would find nothing unoriginal about ‘Johnny Gaddaar,’ one of the best homage films ever made. (Read my review of the film here.)
Not every filmmaker exposes his influences to critics who are just waiting to spot the reference.
In a detailed exclusive interview over email, Raghavan explains:
“When I wrote the piece about the movies that influenced and inspired me, it was not some sort of confession. The movies I listed are great films, by great directors. When I began Johnny Gaddaar, I wanted to imbibe some of the qualities that made those films so rich and layered. My plot is not based on any of the films. Of course, the genre will have some elements in common. Femme fatales, corrupt cops, double crossers, infidelity and so on.
Likewise every film set in a jail like Ek Hasina Thi will have common elements. Shawshank Redemption, Midnight Express, Escape from Alcatraz, Birdman of Alcatraz, The Great Escape, Lock up, Double Jeopardy are all such different films. But they will have at least half dozen common situations.
I see a fairly THICK line between homage, inspiration and plagiarism. I mean, what’s the point of copying a scene ditto…where’s the fun and challenge in it.”
Unfortunately, for Raghavan, the film did not have the best of openings and the film couldn’t stay on till the word of mouth spread. ‘Johnny Gaddaar’ averaged three and a half stars on five from over a dozen reviews around the country but the box office can be cruel.
What went wrong?
“Jaideep Sahni asked one ticket seller in a hall, how is the picture? He had an interesting answer. He said, picture zabardast hai, audience bekar hai.
But, I wont blame the audiences. Why would anyone risk paying 150-200 rupees on a weekend to see a film with a new actor? Unless…they know it’s a damn good film. I would have loved it but I did not expect a huge opening for the film. I was confident that those who saw it would like it and spread the word. That’s exactly what is happening. But the press has been extremely positive and so too various people in the film fraternity. The word of mouth is strong and the second weekend collections are better than the first.
Also most movies made today expect the viewer to leave his brains at home. Johnny demands the viewer pay attention. That’s the way I like to watch thrillers, all movies actually.
I do feel we should have had some innovative marketing strategy. We did promote the film to our best but certain movies need strong marketing ideas. Hitchcock announced during the release of Pyscho that no viewer would be allowed in the hall once the movie began. Also he had an ambulance outside every theatre in case someone got a heart attack. These gimmicks create curiousity and then if the film is good too, there’s no stopping it. Pyscho was his most inexpensive film but his biggest hit.”
We decide to let him refute a little criticism that he’s got from critics around the country. That the police is near absent during the proceedings. That you have “over-written” and “over-directed” the film. That it is the first comprehensive spot the movie reference exercise.
“Ok….one by one. The lead characters are shrewd criminals so they’d definitely ensure that their misdeeds don’t attract the police. In fact one of the main characters is a corrupt cop!! I could have shown cops doing some sundry investigations but it’s not relevant to my story. The story takes place over just 2-3 days and I’m sure the cops would get into the picture once they find the bodies…but by then, the movie is over.
I don’t understand what over written and over directed mean. Need examples to answer that. Really. I can understand over acting. Or over dose of violence..but how can you overwrite a film. Do the critics mean it’s too verbose? Or have I taken strange angles and bizarre show off kind of shots?
Spot the references….Well…I feel the references are vital to the movie’s screenplay. I mean the various clips I’ve shown are carrying the plot of Johnny Gaddaar forward. The lead guy gets his caper idea from an old Amitabh Bachchan movie. The characters speak about movies like Scarface and Black…but why not? Don’t we all refer to movies in our day to day conversations. People have love it. It’s all meant for fun…and offsets the dark and nasty things that happen in the movie.”
The characterisation in Johnny Gaddaar would make you believe it was a script the Coen Brothers wrote. Is that what he stole from them – the art of creating memorably real characters?
“I love the Coen Brothers work. My favourites are Millers Crossing, Blood Simple and Fargo. Fargo has a pregnant cop in charge of the investigation. It was not necessary to the script but it lends the character an emotional reality and quirky appeal. Nine out of ten heroines in India would throw me out if I suggested such a thing to them. But Francis McDormand did a super job and even won an Oscar for the performance. While making Johnny, I and my writers kept brainstorming on how to make the characters somewhat real so that they connect with viewers even though they are racketeers. Also I must thank my actors who brought their own inputs and experiences to give shades to the roles that were not so fleshed out in the script.”
We then talk a little about the fantastic score that was nostalgic enough to give us the goose-bumps.The title sequence was pure nostalgia for the Hindi film freak.
“All credit for the soundtrack goes to Shankar Ehsaan Loy and my background music composer Daniel George. Actually we had no scope for conventional songs in the movie. And yet I love music and wanted a lot of music in the film. So we asked SEL to do a title song which we could use in a crucial scene as background. I loved the song so much that I persuaded them to take time out and compose two more numbers. They are used very briefly in the film and to really enjoy it, you got to listen to the CD. It’s an eclectic album.”
And then, he belts out the references of his learning again:
“A good thriller needs a terrific background score. Imagine Pyscho or Taxi Driver without Bernard Hermann’s tracks. Or Untouchables without Ennio Morricone.
The JG score has been composed by Daniel B George. We have done some experimenting here…. The BG score was majorly conceived on live performances and recorded on an analog machine. We tried to stay away from the digital environment which is in right now.
The tympanis, brass, violins were all recorded live. The approach has actually been to record music like it was done back in the 70s. It was a long and arduous and comparatively expensive process but the quality will be discernible to the audience.
I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and had the privilege to work with musicians like Franco Vaz, who’ve actually played for RD Burman, Kalyanji Anandji and other greats.”
His next project with Saif Ali Khan, Agent Vinod sounds like another throwback to a bygone era. Is that another homage film?
“Agent Vinod is a realistic thriller set in the world of current day espionage. The script is still being honed so it’s too early to speak about the plot etc. But it’s not like the James Bond spoofs that Hindi movies had successfully attempted. I mean, it’s not Farz or Suraksha or even the Rajshri production Agent Vinod starring Mahendra Sandhu.
We will have no scene like the Chief of Intelligence hears about some disaster and says Call Vinod. And we cut to Vinod in bed with a buxom beauty and his watch goes beeeep.
Yes, there will be thrills and shocks and action set pieces but more in a believable mould. I loved the recent Casino Royale and Bourne Ultimatum. Again, I’ve to think of an interesting way to weave music as you cant have a spy in these times, singing and romancing a girl over the Niagara Falls. Or can we??”
The way he talks so much about movies other than his, he’s on his way to earn the Desi Tarantino tag.
“Desi Tarantino sounds too funny,” he says.
“And I hope that every film I do will not be like this. I get influenced by so many styles of filmmaking and yet somewhere, I hope I can make films for our audiences, and on my terms.
The next film I’m doing is an offbeat love story. I’m still working on the script and it’s not even titled. But on my comp, I’ve put down that the treatment should be something like Run Lola Run meets Three Colours Blue. What does that mean? I don’t know myself. Filmmaking is a process of discovery and adventure which is what makes it nerve wracking… and fun too.”